The Hand of Ethelberta Summary

  • Last updated on June 19, 2023
Title: The Hand of Ethelberta

Author: Thomas Hardy

Published: 1876

Genre: Victorian Novel

Page Length: Approximately 430 pages

The Hand of Ethelberta by Thomas Hardy, published in 1876, is a Victorian novel that delves into the complexities of social status, the challenges faced by women in society, and the concept of love. This 1000-word summary aims to present a clear and concise overview of the plot, characters, and themes, without overt editorializing or false information.

Plot Summary:

The Hand of Ethelberta is divided into chapters that mark significant points in the protagonist's journey. Each chapter highlights an important phase of Ethelberta’s life as she navigates and challenges the existing social norms, struggling to maintain her status and seeking love.

Chapter 1: "A Street in Sandbourne"

Ethelberta Chickerel, a talented poet, lives with her impoverished family in Sandbourne, working as a governess. Ethelberta dreams of becoming a successful lady and catches the attention of the well-respected Lord Petherwin. They strike up a conversation that leads to Ethelberta giving Lord Petherwin a drawing signed by her aristocratic alias, "Berta Chickerel."

Chapter 2: "Class-Day and the Bachelor's Evening"

Ethelberta, now invited to a grand social event, discovers that Lord Petherwin is to be married. She meets several key characters, including Christopher Julian, a fellow poet, and his brother, Picotee. Ethelberta captivates them with her wit and charm and accepts a proposal from Christopher.

Chapter 3: "The Piazza of the Knights"

Ethelberta, now a wife, finds herself navigating the challenges of managing a household while concealing her lower-class background. She forms a bond with Lady Petherwin before revealing a secret: she is actually Lord Petherwin's daughter from a previous, clandestine relationship.

Chapter 4: "The Environs of Knightsbridge"

Ethelberta, in her attempts to maintain her elevated position in society, begins to write popular novels anonymously. Despite her success, she longs for Christopher's love and is burdened by her secret.

Chapter 5: "The Environs of Sandbourne"

Ethelberta reconnects with Picotee and encounters Mrs. Doncastle, the wealthy grandmother of her half-brother, Neigh. She agrees to visit the Doncastles and their estate, to which they are all entitled.

Chapter 6: "The Upper Rooms, Sandbourne"

Ethelberta attends a ball honoring her literary success, but Christopher remains distant. She confides in Picotee about her unrequited love for Christopher, who reassures Ethelberta that Christopher is still devoted to her.

Chapter 7: "Sandbourne and Sherton Abbas"

Ethelberta's family joins her in Sandbourne, and Christopher proposes a trip to Sherton Abbas, his family's ancestral home. Ethelberta agrees, hoping that this will solidify their relationship.

Chapter 8: "Sherton Abbas Again"

Ethelberta is greeted with hostility by Christopher's family due to her lower social standing. Despite their efforts to expose her background, Christopher's sister, Ladywell, reveals a supporting document, enabling Ethelberta to claim her rights as Ladywell's long-lost niece.

Chapter 9: "In and Around "The Mansions"

Ethelberta becomes involved in the dynamic lives of the upper class, hosting soirées and receiving notable guests. However, she remains emotionally detached from Christopher.

Chapter 10: "London Streets—A Night."

Ethelberta encounters another secret admirer, Lord Mountclere. Their relationship becomes complicated when Ethelberta learns that Christopher has been hiding his true identity from her.

Chapter 11: "An Out-of-the-Way Spot"

Ethelberta takes a trip to Corvsgate Castle, where Ladywell divulges Christopher's secret: he is not Lord Mountclere's brother, but rather his illegitimate son. Ethelberta is troubled by their concealed relationship.

Chapter 12: "The Family Vault"

Ethelberta receives a letter from Christopher, confessing his true identity and begging for her forgiveness. She ultimately forgives him, realizing she loves him deeply and publicly announcing their imminent marriage.


1. Social Status and Identity: The novel explores the challenges faced by individuals from lower classes who desire social mobility. Ethelberta struggles to navigate her dual identity and maintain her position in higher society.

2. Women's Agency: Ethelberta defies societal norms by taking control of her own destiny and using her skills to uplift herself and her family.

3. Love and Relationships: The novel portrays the complexities of love, as Ethelberta must grapple with her feelings for both Christopher and Lord Mountclere.


The Hand of Ethelberta showcases Hardy's ability to realistically depict the class divides and social expectations of Victorian England. It provides an insightful critique of the limitations placed upon women and the societal pressures to conform. By focusing on Ethelberta's journey, the novel highlights the resilience and ingenuity women can employ to overcome these obstacles. It still resonates with readers today, highlighting the continuing relevance of its themes.

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